Womersley, Chris - 'The Low Road'
Lee placed the suitcase onto one of the two low, narrow beds and sat next to it. The bed emitted a birdlike squawk. I got to change my clothes. I'm covered in blood. Gingerly he removed his leather coat and wiped his hands on already filthy jeans.
The young man's name is Lee. He has blood on his clothes and a bullet in his side. Sharing the same motel is Wild, a medical man in disgrace who checked-in by way of relief from sleeping in his car. Wild is roused from his stoned stupor by a knock at the door. Sylvia, the motel's manager, wants his help with another guest, a kid who's been dumped here - injured. She doesn't want the police coming round and she knows Wild is a medical man, he can fix the kid. Reluctantly Wild goes with Sylvia to look at the boy and tells her the injury is a bullet wound and that the bullet's still in there. The kid needs surgery, a hospital. He, Wild, can't do anything about it, he can't operate on the kid. Sure you can, says Sylvia. You're the Junky Doctor I read about in the papers. Sylvia goes on to tell Wild that he owes her money for his room and the matter can be settled by his getting Lee out of her motel. Wild thinks maybe he can get Lee to an old doctor friend who lives out in the country. This seems to satisfy them both. Later, when Lee resurfaces alone in his room, he checks the suitcase, surprised that it's still with him. He opens it. The money is neatly stacked in bundles and Josef's gun is resting on top. Meanwhile, in another part of town, Josef gets a call from Marcel. Where's Lee? He was supposed to turn up with the money but he hasn't appeared. No-one has heard from him. He was your idea, Josef. Find him or else. You've got two days.
Australian writer Chris Womersley's THE LOW ROAD follows the events of several days during which two men travel into a remote country area of Australia: one has a suitcase full of money and a bullet wound, the other has a bag full of morphine and a secret. A third man follows them and he has a job to do. The novel won the Ned Kelly Award for Best First Book after its Australian publication in 2007 and Womersley's second book BEREFT was shortlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger. Now Quercus has given THE LOW ROAD its first publication in the UK.
The novel opens with a quote from Heraclitus: "A man's character is his fate" and perhaps thereby hangs the tale. Described as "modern noir", I have to say that I found this book so without light as to be difficult to continue reading it. Let me say that I do like "noir" crime writing - the work of writers such as: Hammett, Chandler, Walter Mosley, Scandinavian writers such as Mankell, Fossum, Indridason - I like them all. But rather than a crime novel as such, THE LOW ROAD feels like a literary novel focussing on events in the lives of three criminalised men. Crime, mystery and the possibilities of hunt-down suspense are not allowed to detract from the introspective pace of the plot and an almost self-conscious literary quality to the writing that I found hard to take alongside its bleak and brutal subject matter. Perhaps, given the dedicated opening quote, this is some kind of modern morality tale. I don't know. THE LOW ROAD is a well-written and award-winning book but it is not my shade of "noir".
Lynn Harvey, England
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